Dads and the Atticus Finch Standard

Every Father’s Day, I enjoy scrolling through the photos and tributes friends post on Facebook. I love reflecting on life with my own father, who died when I was 22, and time with my husband, who – more than any other achievement – cares about being a good dad.

I think he, like many fathers of his generation, holds himself to the “Atticus Finch standard.”

20091206Caroline&RichMIChildrensChoir 019I would imagine that most people born after World War II were inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird – either in the form of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 book, or the film, which came out two years later and won three Oscars, including one for Gregory Peck, who played Atticus.

What’s not to love about Atticus? He is calm, patient, loving and thoughtful. He models high morals and a great work ethic. He reads voraciously on his own and with his children. Atticus allows his children the freedom to play outdoors and make their own mistakes, and takes advantage of “teachable moments.” And perhaps most important, he is present in his children’s lives.

Atticus tops numerous “best of” lists, including “Top 10 Father Figures in Literature” and “Top 10 Father Figures in Film.” Of course, these accolades are not surprising, given that the book has been named “Greatest novel of all time” and “best novel of the [20th] century.”

While my husband is not a lawyer, not exactly even of temperament, not a widower and not a Southern gentleman he, like Atticus Finch, takes his role as a father very seriously, and makes every effort to spend time with his children.

When the kids were young, he read to them and told bedtime stories at night. He invented “Star Wars” games and watched Jurassic Park and The Aristocats 10,000 times. He suffered through sleepless nights in bunk beds during Y-Guides and Y-Princess campouts.

My husband spent countless hours on bleachers, watching everything from T-ball practices to long swim meets to high school football games and dance recitals.

Now, he engages in meaningful conversation during family dinners and puts his smart phone and laptop away during weekends and vacations.

Perhaps most important, he is present in our home and family.

Much has been written about the negative impact of fatherless families. According to a recent blog post, one out of every three U.S. children – 15 million in all – lives without a father. From 2000 to 2010, a period in which the U.S. added 160,000 families with children, the number of two-parent households decreased by 1.2 million.

This blog, “The Fatherless Generation,” notes that coming from fatherless homes is attributed to a strikingly disproportionate amount of suicide, homelessness, behavioral disorders and imprisonment among youth, particularly boys.

While the impact of fatherless families on young women is harder to quantify, my guess is it is no less severe. In fact, a host of recent studies and books have delved into the issue.

In the Psychology Today article, “How Dads Shape Daughters’ Relationships,” Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD, wrote,“If there was a dad or other male caregiver in your early life, he probably set the first model of how a relationship with a man would be…[A] woman’s early relationship with dad, who is usually the first male object of her love, shapes her conscious and unconscious perceptions of who she can expect and what is acceptable in a romantic partner.”

Ken Canfield, author of Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers and The Heart of a Father, notes that when a father is absent from his daughter’s life at a crucial time, she can become “frozen” relationally, and “There is a void in her life and the search to fill that void prompts her to take risks in relationships which usually result in some really poor choices.”

I learned of this connection a decade ago, while speaking with another mom during a preschool field trip. This woman told me she had spent time volunteering at a Planned Parenthood facility in a very conservative part of Texas.

She recalled that she had seen women of all ages, from young teenagers to 40-somethings, struggling with unwanted pregnancies – mostly because they lacked consistent romantic partners. When I asked if she could draw any conclusions or generalities from this experience, she said, “Definitely. Those woman all had one thing in common: no stable father in their lives.”

I shared this with my husband, and he took the information to heart. While by nature he prefers watching sports on TV, throwing a football in the yard and floating down a river with a fly-rod in hand, he became an involved father to his little girl.

He wants his daughter to remember that they played dress-ups and read books about princesses. He sat on the floor and played out Barbie and Ken scenarios with her. He watched dance, piano and choir recitals and even volunteered to join a group of “dancing Santas” for a children’s choir show.

Today, while Pea is a teenager and not particularly open to heart-to-hearts with her dad, his impact on her life remains strong. She is confident and driven and, so far, has not sought affirmation in the wrong places.

Like Scout Finch and Harper Lee, Pea knows her daddy loves her, and that he is watching.

– Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 16 June 2014
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